"You've got to stand under the Howdy Partner' neon sign"
He has helped define Detroit and the automobile, Silicon Valley and the computer, MIT and the military-industrial complex. For years he has trained students about how to understand civilization's most impressive engineering marvels--bridges, towers, dams, and skyscrapers.
But Bill Leslie, a historian of science and technology at The Johns Hopkins University, has just discovered the Eighth Wonder of the Modern World, and this spring he will lead his charges on their first pilgrimage to witness the spectacle.
Viva Las Vegas!
"Here's a city that shouldn't be there at all," Leslie says. "Unlike most great cities in this country, it's not situated near water. It's not a port city. It's not a hub. It's not on a lake or a river. It's not really even an oasis so much as a marsh. And it's completely artificial. But you can tell a lot about modern America by studying Las Vegas."
For three years, Leslie has taught a course at Hopkins called, The Seven Wonders of the Modern World.' As an exposition of engineering feats that reflect on the seven ancient wonders, enumerated by Philo of Byzantium in the second century B.C., the course relates ancient wonders such as the Pyramids, Colossus and the Hanging Gardens of Babylon to modern achievements, such as the New York subway system, the Eiffel Tower and the Statue of Liberty.
But during the impressive building boom in Las Vegas over the past several years, Leslie says he became intrigued with the fact that facsimiles of most of the ancient wonders-- and many of the modern wonders--now exist in one place for all to behold.
"There's the Great Pyramid at the Luxor Hotel, a replica of Manhattan's skyline at the New York-New York hotel, a miniature Eiffel Tower ... In Philo's time, when he composed the list of ancient wonders, he noted that it would take an entire lifetime to see them all. Today, in Las Vegas, you can see them all in one day."
Most importantly, Leslie says, Las Vegas has reinvented itself by making an astonishing transition from America's "Babylon" to one of the most popular family tourist destinations in the world. Intellectually, the city offers a smorgasbord of topics for study of contemporary American culture: Gambling and organized crime; frontier notions about the West and new beginnings; the centrality of entertainment and tourism; the development of atomic weapons; the turn from austere modern to playful post-modern architecture; a competing model of American success based on luck and risk-taking rather than pluck, conservatism and hard work.
To make sure the lessons stick, however, Leslie has added a field trip, a four-day extravaganza westward for university seniors only.
"What makes it really interesting is seeing it for yourself," he says. "You can't appreciate it from a photograph alone, no matter how much enlarged. You've got to stand under the Howdy Partner' neon sign and enter a room with 1,200 slot machines to experience the scale of these things."
While there exists a small scholarly literature about Las Vegas and a number of good historical accounts about the city's development, Leslie's study will be augmented by films such as Leaving Las Vegas, journalistic accounts such as Hunter Thompson's Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas and, of course, an immersion during the university's spring break, which begins March 15.
This will be one of the more controversial parts," says Leslie, who has never visited Las Vegas himself. "But to have the experience, I do want them to gamble and, if they want, to drink. I don't want this to be Animal House Goes to Las Vegas,' so I'll set strict limits on how much they can lose, and I've restricted the trip to people who are 21 and over. But I do want them to experience it."
Leslie is the author of two books, one about the automobile and the other about American science and the Cold War. He also has become an expert on regional cultures, particularly Silicon Valley and its would-be emulators.
After teaching a course about Baltimore last year, the city in which Hopkins is located, he's looking forward to the field trip west. Besides, the father of one of his students is a city official in Las Vegas, so they're guaranteed access to some behind-the-scenes experiences, and he has chosen a well-rounded group of students to join him.
To cap it off, Leslie has reservations at one of the nicest hotels in town, the Luxor, where a facsimile of the Great Pyramid looms in the architecture.
"By god, if you're going to talk about the modern wonders, you might as well stay at one," he says. "Unfortunately, Wayne Newton's going to be in Missouri that week. But we'll find some other entertainer from the 50s or 60s to see."
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